The city centre as an experience centre
City centres are the shopping centres of the future. Waregem and Het Pand, the completely renovated shopping centre in the city centre, serve as prime examples. We got together with the mayor of Waregem, Kurt Vanryckeghem, alderman Kristof Chanterie and Bart Verschelde, director of Wagso, to discuss why Het Pand is such a success story.
Waregem scores better than the Flemish aver- age.
It is estimated that more than 1 in 10 retail properties in Flanders are vacant. In real terms, this amounts to a total of more than 5,000 premises. Waregem’s vacancy rate is far below the average; in the core shopping area, the figure is even below 8%. The number of shops per 1,000 inhabitants is almost a third higher than in the rest of the Flemish Region. Here, there are fewer long- term vacancies; empty commercial premises quickly find a new tenant.
A proud Waregem mayor Kurt Vanryckeghem explains why: “The city of Waregem takes numerous initiatives to keep vacancies to a minimum. One of these is the total renovation of shopping centre Het Pand, which is owned by the municipality. Waregem has a good mix of chains and independent shops. This balance between larger retailers and strong local traders is very important and has just been consolidated by the renovation of Het Pand.”
“The balance between larger retailers and strong local traders is very important.” KV
Waregem as a retail city
This seems to tie in perfectly with a bigger picture of city centres as the shopping centres of the future. But for this to become a reality, city centres would need to be managed in the same way...
Kurt Vanryckeghem: “Indeed, strengthening the city centre is very important in a regional city like Ware- gem. Today, pressure on the retail sector is very high. Customers are evolving too. It’s crucial for a city to do everything in its power to support and guide this evolution. A resurgence of city centres is possible if you focus on creating an attractive core shopping area with an appealing and diverse range, combined with sufficient experience-related aspects.”
Kristof Chanterie, alderman of the local economy: “In Waregem, the renovation of Het Pand is one of the pillars that really makes all the differ- ence in the heart of the core shopping area. The city council itself is investing 17.5 million euros in the renovation. As landlord, we also look for new tenants ourselves. We do so through WAGSO, the Waregems Autonoom Gemeentebedrijf StadsOntwikkeling (Waregem Autonomous Municipal Company for Urban Development). In our capacity as lessor, we ensure we have a direct impact on the retail scene. We also have a city coach, which ensures that the entire core shopping area can be managed even more effectively to form a coherent whole with Het Pand. Today, more than 60 percent of Het Pand has already been rented out again, even though the renovation is only scheduled to be finished in August 2022.”
The city of Waregem is profiling itself as a genuine retail city. The renovation plans for Het Pand certainly helped. All the retail premises are being given a major refurbishment, including buildings with shop windows with a height of no less than 5 metres. Around 800 square metres of retail space is also being added for both independent or local traders and large chains. “Not to mention the integrated, ultra-efficient parking, an experience square and a city garden!” adds alderman Kristof Chanterie.
Bart Verschelde, director of WAGSO: “As far as we know, Het Pand is the only shopping centre in Flanders that is owned by a municipality. The city of Waregem owns the entire commercial part of the complex as well as the majority of the administrative buildings. As a subsidiary of the city, WAGSO manages these commercial retail and office spaces and will ensure that the available units are leased in the future. For this, we’ve entered into a partnership with Ceusters.”
Flemish Minister of Economy Hilde Crevits:
“Many people turned to online shop-ping during the pandemic, but at the same time, people in Flanders have also (re)discovered local shopping en masse these past twelve months. As a result, now is the perfect time to focus on creating pleasant trading centres where it’s nice to live, work and shop. Something we sorely need, as 11% of business premises in Flanders are empty. But we’re not leaving local authorities to fend for themselves in this arena. We have an action plan entitled ‘Werk aan de Winkel’, which includes an investment fund that will help municipalities purchase and transform commercial premises. In addition, our ‘Profploeg’ team of experts serves as a kind of superhero rescuer for trading centres. It’s not just a financial boost or a new study, but an actual team that can set new standards on the ground. Waregem is doing something that ought to be possible in many municipalities and cities: developing a site where shopping, work, food, culture and leisure merge to create an attractive public space. In other words, a place where residents enjoy spending time.” - Hilde Crevits
The context is well-known. More online shopping, fewer retailers, fewer independent entrepreneurs, new mobility... All these developments are presenting local authorities across the country with a major problem. How can we re- invent our ‘trading system’ so that city centres survive as attractive commercial hubs?
What assets does Waregem city centre offer?
Mayor Kurt Vanryckeghem: “Across all policy areas, we’re working on the same goal based on a single, comprehensive plan: ensuring our city is and remains attractive to residents, shoppers and visitors alike. Waregem has one major asset: everything here is within walking distance. Shops, cafés and restaurants, but also the library, other cultural buildings and even our football stadium are located in an area the size of a handkerchief, so to speak. In addition, there’s plenty of greenery in this area. That small scale is an enormous advantage.”
But you wanted to take things even further…
Kurt Vanryckeghem: “Indeed we did. To enhance the city centre even further, we set up a think tank with various experts and specialists. The aim of Flemish Minister of Economy Hilde Crevits is to bring together municipal administration, post offices, stores, food and drinks outlets and leisure activities in a single place in order to create more interaction. Our goal in Waregem was to achieve precisely that.”
Bart Verschelde: “This certainly requires some smart alliances. The project is the result of a think tank that was launched in 2017. The central starting point at the time was the future of Het Pand. We created various working groups and drew up a strategic commercial plan. And that’s how our path crossed with that of the biggest manager of shopping centres in our country, Ceusters. Under the leadership of Dominique Desmeytere, we embarked on a coaching trajectory. This allowed Het Pand to attract new tenants, including the supermarket Albert Heijn, which will occupy 2,000 m² – the largest space.”
Kristof Chanterie: “The collaboration with Ceusters began about after we held a procurement competition. The assignment included both the preparation and supervision of the commercial aspects of the renovation project, as well as an agreement to attract new tenants by the reopening of the complex in August 2022. Thanks to this far-reaching collaboration, a number of new commercial leases have already been concluded with both local and (inter)national players. The major added value here was the combination of the expertise of Ceusters, which allowed the right connections to be made, and the local anchoring that ensured independent businesses were interested as well.”
Bart Verschelde: “This industry mix between appealing local traders and retailers has always been one of the strengths of Het Pand. We definitely want to keep this mix in the future. Ceusters certainly provides good sup- port in this respect.”
By completely renovating the shopping centre in the inner city, you’re also targeting the city centre. How are you handling these two sides of the story?
Kristof Chanterie: “Together with the existing traders, who were forced to move due to the renovation, we succeeded in giving an attractive interpretation to empty commercial premises in the city centre. In brief, we used the pop-up system. It’s actually a win-win situation: traders can seamlessly continue their activities in the city centre while vacancies are kept to a minimum. We also guaranteed them that they would be able to reoccupy their original place in Het Pand after the renovation.”
Kurt Vanryckeghem: “To this day, we’re very satisfied with the collaboration between the city council, WAGSO and Ceusters. And all business is conducted in our very own language, West Flemish! (chuckles) It’s a great example of teamwork. We always tried to achieve the best possible balance between supporting the traders who were already in Het Pand and attracting new ones. Bringing together expertise and local knowledge and – above all – a great deal of commitment is what enabled us to elevate the story of Het Pand and Waregem city centre and turn it into a success story.”
Ceusters brings seeking parties together
The Albert Heijn supermarket will be the star attraction at Het Pand in Waregem. By enabling the lease agreement, Ceusters ensured a perfect match between the city, the shopping centre and the well-known supermarket chain. Albert Heijn will occupy a retail space of just under 2,000m2 and will use an additional storage space of more than 500m2. The retail space occupies slightly over 30% of the commercial ground floor area of the shopping centre. Both the city and the retailer had been looking for a suitable location for six years. Thanks to Ceusters, the pieces of the puzzle now fit together nicely, while an optimal industry mix between local traders and strong brands – which was the goal specified for Het Pand – is taking shape. In addition to the well-known supermarket, the arrival of other strong brands like Hans Anders and Kameleon has also been confirmed. Ceusters was given the task of both bringing in new retailers and helping existing tenants find the best possible spot (and connection with their target group) in the completely renovated Waregem shopping centre. Balance established and mission completed, we would say !
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